“They don’t show you this part on TV,” Christine Baskets laments in an upcoming episode of FX’s Baskets, which returns for a second season tonight at 10. At the moment, Christine is figuring out how to post bail for her son Chip, but the statement could apply to virtually anything on Baskets, a weird, sad, lovely little comedy unlike anything else on TV. It’s never about what you expect it to be about, and never in the way you expect it to be about anything.
So Christine, for instance, is played by male comedian Louie Anderson, but it’s not a joke about a guy in a dress; it’s a sincere, largely dramatic — and Emmy-winning — portrayal of a woman whose life hasn’t at all turned out to be the way she planned it, from the suicide of her husband to the disappointment of her sons to her diabetes. And those disappointing sons are identical twins Chip and Dale (played by Zach Galifianakis, who co-created the series with Jonathan Krisel and Louis C.K.) — named after the Rescue Rangers, no less — yet even though Chip aspires to be a clown while Dale runs a trade school, Chip is the more melancholy and clever of the brothers.
Again and again, Baskets confounds expectations. When laughs come, they tend to be from the deadpan-bordering-on-comatose delivery of Martha Kelly as Chip’s best and only friend, Martha, and occasionally from Chip’s overly complicated fast food restaurant orders. And every time the show seems to be veering into another uncomfortable Galifianakis project about a clod utterly lacking in self-awareness, Chip turns out to be just wise enough for the story to spin off into a more melancholy, and occasionally sweet, direction.
“But I don’t think clowns are needed as much, because the world’s become so clownish,” Chip suggests to some new friends he meets early in the new season.
Though the series’ main character is barely viable economically — in season 1, he was a rodeo clown who wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom indoors, while he begins this year as a hobo riding the rails — and the action is frequently set at Costco and various unglamorous chain restaurants (plus an upcoming visit to the Ronald Reagan Library), it’s among the most beautiful, visually and spiritually, things on TV right now. Krisel, who directs all the episodes, and his crew make gorgeous use of the desert light in and around Chip’s Bakersfield hometown, and even when things are utterly ridiculous — say, Chip befriending a band of hobo performers named after characters from The Matrix — there’s something deeper emotionally going on. And amidst the slapstick and the yelling and the weird pronunciations — not to mention a second pair of (adopted) identical twins, rarely seen because they’re busy as opening act DJs for the Chemical Brothers — the Baskets family somehow feels real. (So, for that matter, does Martha, even if she makes Steven Wright seem too excited.)
This is a weird little show, vibrating on a frequency that will only be audible to a small percentage of its potential audience. But that percentage was high enough for FX to order a second season, the first four episodes of which are even more self-assured and odd and tragic and ridiculous than anything Galifianakis and company tried a year ago.
I can’t always explain it; I’m just glad it continues to exist.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org